One of the great things about art is that it’s always open to interpretation. You can pore over your favorite painting over and over again and still discover a new cryptic symbol or hidden detail.
Some of the most famous artists in the world intentionally put secret messages in their paintings, whether to subvert authority, challenge audiences, or reveal something about themselves. Hundreds of years later, thanks to advancements in technology, many of these secret messages are first being discovered. So read on to learn 25 mind-blowing secrets hidden in the most famous works of art.
“The Last Supper”
If you’ve read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, you know that this late 15th-century mural by Leonardo da Vinci has been the subject of lots of speculation.
Brown proposed that the disciple to the right of Jesus is actually Mary Magdalene disguised as John the Apostle. He also suggests that the “V” shape that forms between Jesus and “John” represents a female womb, which implies that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a child together.
Art historians, however, are skeptical. Many suggest that John’s appearance is feminine simply because that’s often how he was depicted. Expert Mario Taddei told Artnet.com: “Leonardo had to copy the last suppers before him, and John looks like a woman.”
But a much more compelling secret message was discovered by Italian computer technician Giovanni Maria Pala. He claims that Da Vinci hid musical notes within “The Last Supper” that, when read from left to right, correspond to a 40-second hymn that sounds like a requiem.
“The Creation of Adam”
“The Creation of Adam” is probably the most famous of the nine biblical panels Michelangelo painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But did you know the scene contained a hidden human brain?
It turns out, Michelangelo was an expert in human anatomy. At 17, he had a somewhat grisly job dissecting corpses from the church graveyard. According to neuroanatomy experts Ian Suk and Rafael Tamargo, the painter placed some carefully concealed illustrations of certain body parts onto the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. And if you look at the shroud surrounding God in “The Creation of Adam,” you’ll find that it creates an anatomical illustration of the human brain.
Suk and Tamargo believe Michelangelo intended for the brain to represent the idea that God was endowing Adam not only with life, but also human knowledge.
“The Separation of Light from Darkness”
“The Creation of Adam” wasn’t the only panel in the Sistine Chapel in which Michelangelo hid anatomical illustrations. According to Suk and Tamargo, in “Separation of Light from Darkness,” you can find a depiction of the human spinal cord and brain stem in the center of God’s chest leading up to his throat.
“Café Terrace at Night”
At first glance, Vincent van Gogh’s 1888 oil painting looks like it’s simply what the title describes: a quaint café terrace in a colorful French city. But, in 2015, Van Gogh expert Jared Baxter proposed the theory that the painting is actually the artist’s own version of “The Last Supper.”
A close study shows one central figure with long hair surrounded by 12 individuals, one of whom seems to be slipping into the shadows like Judas. There are also what appear to be small crucifixes hidden throughout the painting, including one above the Jesus-like central figure.
“The Prophet Zechariah”
Some of Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel might have some pretty cheeky hidden secrets. “The Prophet Zechariah,” for example, seems like a mural of the eponymous prophet reading a book while two cherubs glance over his shoulder.
But, if you look closely, it appears as if one of the angels is “flipping the fig,” which is when one puts their thumb between their middle and index fingers. Basically, it’s the ye olde version of the middle finger.
Rabbi Benjamin Blech of Yeshiva University told ABC News: “This perhaps is the key to understanding Michelangelo’s courage, Michelangelo’s true feelings about the Pope, and the fact that Michelangelo did not hesitate to present us with messages that might’ve been offensive.”
Da Vinci’s 15th-century masterpiece is one of the most recognizable artworks in the world, but there’s more to see here than that infamous half-smile.
Firstly, there’s some speculation that she’s pregnant, given the way her arms are positioned over her belly and the veil around her shoulders, which was often worn by pregnant women during the Italian Renaissance.
But the newest findings are in her eyes. In 2011, Italian researcher Silvano Vinceti claimed that he found letters and numbers microscopically painted onto them. He told the Associated Press that the “L” over her right eye likely stands for the artist’s name.
But the meanings of the letter “S” he sees in her left eye and the number “72” under the arched bridge in the backdrop are less clear. Vinceti believes the “S” might refer to a woman in the Sforza dynasty that ruled Milan, meaning the woman in the painting may not be Lisa Gherardini, as it’s long been believed. As for the “72,” Vinceti argues that could be due to the numbers’ significance in both Christianity and in Judaism. For example, “7” refers to the creation of the world, and the number “2” could refer to the duality of men and women.
“The Arnolfini Portrait”
When you first look at Jan van Eyck’s 1434 oil painting, it seems to simply depict the merchant Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife.
But if you look closely at the mirror in the center of the room, you’ll see that there are two figures entering the room. It’s widely believed that one of them is meant to be Van Eyck himself. You’ll also notice that there’s a Latin inscription in very elaborate writing on the wall above the mirror, which translates to “Jan van Eyck was here. 1434.”
Hans Holbeinthe Younger’s 1533 painting, “The Ambassadors,” features a rather impressive illusion at its base. If you look at the lopsided image at the bottom of the painting from right to left, it appears to be an anamorphic skull. Scholars believe it’s intended to be a reminder that death is always around the corner.
“The Old Guitarist”
Pablo Picasso’s haunting early 1900s depiction of an elderly man cradling a guitar is one of the most revered works of his Blue Period.
However, in 1998, researchers used an infrared camera and discovered that there is another painting layered underneath it, which features a woman. Now that the paint is fading, it’s become easier to see the woman’s face above the old man’s neck.
In 1884, John Singer Sargent painted a portrait of wealthy Parisian socialite Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau. He originally depicted the jeweled strap of her gown slipping off her shoulder, but the artwork scandalized upper-class society. Sargent had to repaint the straps, rename the painting to disguise the subject’s name, and move to London to avoid further embarrassment.
“View of Scheveningen Sands”
If you visited Hendrick van Anthonissen’s “View of Scheveningen Sands” at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England between 1873 and 2014, you wouldn’t have seen that giant beached whale.
That’s because it took 140 years for someone to notice that in the artwork, a bunch of people are gathered in a cluster to gaze at nothing. When conservator Shan Kuang removed a coat of yellow varnish while restoring the 1641 landscape, she revealed a beached whale and solved the mystery.
The specific meaning behind Sandro Botticelli’s masterpiece is contested. But it’s widely accepted that on some level, the artwork is a celebration of spring and the fertility the season brings.
The painting does have secret delights for horticulture enthusiasts. Botanists have identified at least 200 different species of plants in “Primavera” that are rendered in specific detail.
This 1559 oil painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder—which is also known as “The Blue Cloak” or “The Topsy Turvy World”—has at least 112 identifiable proverbs acted out within it. Some of them are idioms that we still use, like “swimming against the tide,” “banging one’s head against a brick wall” (which is circled above), and “armed to the teeth.” Try to see how many you can name and try not to go cross-eyed.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s 1595 painting “Bacchus” is one of his most acclaimed works.
There doesn’t seem to be much hidden, but thanks to modern technology called reflectography, art experts in 2009 were able to discover that the image of a man is actually hidden in the carafe of wine in the bottom left. And it may just be Da Caravaggio himself. “Caravaggio painted a person in an upright position, with an arm held out towards a canvas on an easel. It appears to be a portrait of himself while he was painting,” expert Mina Gregori told The Telegraph.
“The Music Lesson”
Much of Johannes Vermeer’s work is brimming with secret symbols of sexuality. For example, in “The Music Lesson,” it seems as though the woman in the painting is gazing down at the keys of a virginal, an instrument associated with female purity. But she’s actually looking away from it to meet the gaze of her instructor, as you can see in the mirror above her. The wine on the table is also an aphrodisiac, and the stringed instrument on the floor could be seen as a phallic symbol.
“David and Goliath”
This panel on the Sistine Chapel shows David defeating the giant Goliath. But Michaelangelo added something pretty cool to this particular scene: David’s stance is intentionally in the shape of the Hebrew letter “gimel.” This letter tends to refer to reward and punishment, which is perfect for the biblical underdog story.
“Madonna with Saint Giovannino”
Italian Renaissance painter Domenico Ghirlandaio’s work “Madonna with Saint Giovannino” gets a lot of attention for the strange item hovering behind Madonna’s head. Some believe it looks like a UFO, which could be an indication of early alien sightings dating back to the 15th century.
Others believe the object is a representation of the Gospel of Luke passage: “Shepherds abiding in the field keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, an angel of the Lord come upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them.” It all depends which side of the alien debate you stand on, we suppose.
“Supper at Emmaus”
Caravaggio hid a fun little Easter egg in his 1601 painting “Supper at Emmaus.” The shadow cast by the basket of fruit on the table looks like a fish, which could be an allusion to when Jesus fed the masses with just a few fish.
“Young Woman Powdering Herself”
Georges Seurat’s painting of a woman putting on makeup may look innocent enough, but there’s a lot more to explore in this late 19th century work.
Recent X-rays have revealed that the seemingly sweet flower painting in the top left corner of the painting was originally a self-portrait of Seurat, but the story goes that “a friend warned him it looked bizarre.”
It’s particularly noteworthy since it was later revealed that the woman in the painting was Seurat’s 20-year-old mistress Madeleine Knobloch and that self-portrait was the only known one Seurat ever did.
As has long been the case with “Mona Lisa,” the facial expression on Michelangelo’s “David” has been the subject of debate for many years.
In 2007, however, Stanford University’s Digital Michelangelo Project discovered that if you view this enormous statue from below, as people often do, he appears to have a calm and confident look on his face. But when viewed from a higher vantage point, David seems to be feeling pretty tense about battling Goliath.
“The Garden of Earthly Delights”
Hieronymus Bosch’s panel on the perils of worldly temptation has many interesting references within it, but one of the strangest was discovered by a college student in 2014.
In the lower lefthand corner of the work—which was done sometime between the late 15th and early 16th centuries—you can see a musical score tattooed across someone’s rear-end. The student translated the music into modern notation, and you can now listen to it. Spoiler alert: It’s fittingly creepy.
“The Birth of Venus”
The nudity in Botticelli’s famous painting was pretty groundbreaking for the late 15th century. But that’s not where the artist’s boldness ends.
Some art historians believe that the scallop shell that Venus is riding the ocean waves on is actually meant to symbolize female genitalia and thereby allude to fertility.
“The Persistence of Memory”
Given what at ingenious surrealist painter Salvador Dalí was, it’s natural to assume that the melting clocks in his 1931 painting “The Persistence of Memory” are an allusion to Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity.
But, as it turns out, the clocks were actually inspired by gooey Camembert cheese. He’s been quoted as saying that the famous melting clocks “are nothing other than the tender, extravagant and solitary paranoiac-critical Camembert of time and space.”
“The Starry Night”
In a 2014 TED Talk, science research associate Natalya St. Clair explained how the movement in Vincent van Gogh’s 1889 painting “The Starry Night” hinted at an extremely complicated mathematical concept called turbulent flow decades before scientists discovered it.
“In 2004, using the Hubble Space Telescope, scientists saw the eddies of a distant cloud of dust and gas around a star, and it reminded them of Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night,'” St. Clair explained. That motivated scientists to study Van Gogh’s paintings in detail and when they did, “they discovered that there is a distinct pattern of turbulent fluid structures … hidden in many of Van Gogh’s paintings.”
“Patch of Grass”
Van Gogh’s 1887 painting “Patch of Grass” vividly recreates a dynamic pastoral scene, but that’s not all.
In 2008, Dutch scientists Joris Dik and Koen Janssens pioneered an X-ray technique that helped them discover a hidden portrait of a peasant woman buried under the blades of grass. Van Gogh was known to paint over his earlier works—and according to The Guardian, experts estimate that about a third of his initial pieces have hidden compositions concealed beneath them.
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